What can you do with a pastor when he/ she stops being a pastor? This question is a paraphrase of Bing Crosby’s forgotten ballad, “What can you do with a general when he stops being a general, what can you do with a general when he is unemployed?”
Pastors respond to retirement in different ways. For many, it is a longed-for period when they can start over again, move closer to extended family, travel or do things they have put off.
But it is not that simple. When John Buchanan retired from Fourth Church in Chicago, he was asked at a professional conference what he missed most about the ministry and became so overcome with emotion that he could not continue. Pastors are called to service, but when they retire it may seem as if they are being rerouted to a new country like Abraham and Sarah (at ages 75 and 65 respectively), to a golf course, to a mission field or to a recliner. If they move, life may need to be rebooted. Bereft of instant recognition and friendship in the parish, they may find themselves searching for a new church home, new friends and new patterns.
For me, it was not as easy as I expected. Because my wife and I were not able to travel or move (two parents in a local nursing home), I enjoyed new freedom to pursue writing, college teaching and serving on presbytery and community committees. But I still felt somewhat adrift. I had informed my congregation that I would not attend worship or perform baptisms, weddings or funerals – but I missed our church family, helping people and the routine of preparing and delivering sermons. Sometimes I also wondered about my role in presbytery when various colleagues implied that suddenly my main function would be to supply wisdom from the past when, in fact, I am more concerned about the church’s future than its history.
One problem we may face in a new age of senior citizens working longer and more productively is that congregations and presbyteries are as uncertain about what to do with retired pastors as the pastors themselves. Perhaps a comment made at a recent presbytery planning meeting reflects what is frequently taken for granted: “We assume that they are all doing fine, are glad to be out of the presbytery and want to be left alone.”
Because senior citizens (and younger adults) are so proactively involved in American culture now, we may need to recognize that ageism can be as prevalent inside the church as it is outside. In a study on teaching diversity and social justice, Barbara J. Love and Kathleen J. Phillips suggest that a necessary future goal in universities should include the identification and development of action strategies to eliminate manifestations of ageism in order to contribute to the transformation of society.
Perhaps it is time for us to check our assumptions about what to do for and with pastors who are retired.
EARL S. JOHNSON JR. is an honorably rewired pastor in Johnstown, New York, and is a lecturer in religious studies at Siena College.